Street Smart

The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars


By Samuel I. Schwartz

With William Rosen

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On a Saturday morning in December 1973, a section of New York’s West Side Highway collapsed under the weight of a truck full of asphalt. The road was closed, seemingly for good, and the 80,000 cars that traveled it each day had to find a new way to their destinations. It ought to have produced traffic chaos, but it didn’t. The cars simply vanished. It was a moment of revelation: the highway had induced the demand for car travel. It was a classic case of “build it and they will come,” but for the first time the opposite had been shown to be true: knock it down and they will go away. Samuel I. Schwartz was inspired by the lesson. He started to reimagine cities, most of all his beloved New York, freed from their obligation to cars. Eventually, he found, he was not alone.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, a surreptitious revolution has taken place: every year Americans are driving fewer miles. And the generation named for this new century — the Millennials — are driving least of all. Not because they can’t afford to; they don’t want to. They have better ideas for how to use their streets. An urban transformation is underway, and smart streets are at the heart of it. They will boost property prices and personal fitness, roll back years of congestion and smog, and offer a transformative experience of American urban life. From San Francisco to Salt Lake, Charleston to Houston, the American city is becoming a better and better place to be. Schwartz’s Street Smart is a dazzling and affectionate history of the struggle for control of American cities, and an inspiring off-road map to a more vibrant, active, and vigorous urban future.




ROADS ARE ONE OF THE DEFINING CHARACTERISTICS OF CIVILIZATION itself. The first roads date back more than ten thousand years, but the earliest ones were strictly for either two- or four-footed walking. The real history of manufactured roads begins with the invention of the wheel by some anonymous Sumerian engineer about seven thousand years ago. Since wheeled carts are a lot more useful on smooth roads than the alternative, stone-and-brick-paved roads followed elsewhere in ancient Mesopotamia and in India and Egypt. Roads paved with cut timber and logs are regularly unearthed in prehistoric England. The tree-ring patterns in the logs of such roads can be very precisely correlated with calendars, enabling scientists to demonstrate, for example, that the mile-and-a-quarter-long “Sweet Track” was built in Somerset in 3807 and/or 3806 BCE. The Roman Empire built flagstone roads that eventually covered more than fifty thousand miles and are still used in parts of Europe.

For obvious reasons, though, most of the world’s manufactured roads appeared first, and lasted longest, within towns and cities. The streets of London and Paris were paved with cobblestones in the Middle Ages; Baghdad had boulevards made of a primitive kind of asphalt in the tenth century. New York got its first cobblestoned street in 1657, when it was still known as New Amsterdam.

Those urban roads were built for transportation, but they were used for recreation and commerce as well. Until the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, horse-drawn carts trying to negotiate a road like Bedford Avenue would have had to dodge pedestrians who filled the street. Peddlers and other tradesmen were as entitled to the street as wagons. Children played in the middle of those roads, and adults met one another there. The one thing Bedford Avenue wouldn’t have seen frequently was the automobile. Even during the first years of the twentieth century, cars were so rare that seeing one was still newsworthy.

All that changed in 1908, when the first Model T rolled out the doors of Henry Ford’s Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit.

The Model T didn’t just change America’s street culture. It’s one of the few machines in history that actually deserves to be called world changing. Before the T, cars were a novelty item for the upper classes and, occasionally, a genuinely useful aid for farmers. Still, the revolution that Ford’s “car for everyone” ignited wasn’t immediate. From December of 1908 through the end of 1910, only twelve thousand Model T’s were sold, at an average price of $850—relatively inexpensive, but still out of the reach of most Americans. In 1911, though, Ford moved manufacturing to a new state-of-the-art plant in Highland Park and turned out seventy thousand T’s.

It was only the beginning. In 1912, Highland Park made 170,000 cars; in 1913, more than 200,000. In 1914, not only did the factory’s laborers churn out 308,000 cars, but they did so at a salary that Ford had doubled, to the famous “five-dollar day.” By 1915, when Highland Park produced more than half a million Model T’s, the price had dropped under $300 each, which meant that Ford assembly-line workers needed to work only nine weeks or so to earn enough money to buy a brand-new car. And they did. As did millions of others. By 1924, more than half the country’s seventeen million automobiles were Model T’s.

All those Fords, along with Dodges, Packards, Buicks, and forgotten models like Brewsters, Biddles, and Westrofts, produced, for the first time, a conflict over the ownership of America’s roads—what became known to historians as the “battle over right-of-way.” Only a year after the introduction of the Model T, the pioneering city planner Daniel Burnham created a plan for the city of Chicago that was explicitly “providing roads for automobility.” In 1922, the professional journal Engineering News–Record called for “a radical revision of our conception of what a city street is for.” In 1923, the Providence Sunday Journal observed (in an article titled “The Jay Walker Problem”) that “it is impossible for all classes of modern traffic to occupy the same right of way at the same time in safety.”

They weren’t kidding. Throughout the 1920s, motor vehicle crashes in the United States killed more than twenty thousand people a year—more than two-thirds of them pedestrians. Campaigns against reckless drivers appeared everywhere, accompanied by graphic stories of auto collisions, usually featuring children and young women. Editorial cartoons vilified drivers. Mobs attacked drivers who hit pedestrians. One Philadelphia paper urged (tongue-in-cheek—I think) that in order to be “in the height of fashion” when they were hurt or even annoyed by a car, “don’t ask whether the victim was wholly or in part to blame. Suggest that the driver of the motor-car be lynched.”

Against the protestors a coalition of new interests emerged: automobile manufacturers, rubber companies, the petroleum industry, car dealers, and the auto clubs found in every city and state (fifty of them had formed the American Automobile Association back in 1902). By the 1920s, the coalition had started to call itself—I’m not making this up—motordom. Motordom wanted streets converted from open spaces available for commercial and recreational uses to one thing and one thing only: arteries for motor vehicles.

In the middle of this battle were local merchants, who just wanted to buy and sell in peace, and who saw the reduction of traffic jams as a priority. In service of that goal, they hired engineers to come up with solutions, such as traffic signals and restrictions on curbside parking. This, to the automobile coalition, was heresy. The merchants and their engineers were attacked by motordom, which regarded any restriction as a violation of some newly hatched fundamental right. “There are already too many laws,” wrote the engineering service manager of the Kelly-Springfield Tire Company in 1923. Alvan Macauley, the president of Packard Motor Company, called traffic control “a burdensome tangle of restrictive legislation.”

You have to give those early automobile advocates credit. They saw, as their opponents did not, that only total victory would do. In 1926, they recognized an opportunity for a key victory in the battle over right-of-way, when President Herbert Hoover empaneled a hundred-member committee to draft a Model Municipal Traffic Ordinance—one that would, in the fullness of time, be the blueprint for traffic regulation all over the United States. The head of that committee was William Metzger, director of the Detroit Automobile Club. The Packard Motor Company’s Alvan “Burdensome Tangle” Macauley served as well. So did nine delegates from other auto clubs, and eight from various automobile companies, tire and rubber companies, and auto insurers, along with four presidents of local Yellow Cab companies and the head of the National Automobile Dealers Association. On the other side were five representatives of the railway industry, and exactly one person who could properly be said to be an advocate for pedestrians: Howard S. Braucher, secretary of the Playground and Recreation Association of America. With the deck stacked so heavily, it won’t come as a surprise that the committee’s final product codified the principle of “streets for cars.” Pedestrians would, thereafter, be confined to sidewalks and crosswalks. The Model Municipal Traffic Ordinance of 1927 transformed city streets from a mixed-use public space into thoroughfares for the exclusive use of cars (and, by the way, underlined the deficiencies of streets like those around Ebbets Field in a new, car-friendly, world).

The real target of the Model Ordinance, though, wasn’t the pedestrian. It was the streetcar.

Horse cars—horse-drawn railways—in America date from 1832, when the first one opened in New York, connecting Prince and 14th Streets, but they really got going in 1852, when Alphonse Loubat developed the familiar grooved rail set flush with the pavement.

Loubat’s cars were pulled by horses, but not for long. Hayburners were a pretty unattractive power source in a world that had discovered how to turn boiling water into mechanical energy. The first successful use of steam power in interurban transport was in cable cars—vehicles that were connected by a releasable grip to a constantly moving steel cable that was operated by steam engines at the end of the cable line, a technology that San Francisco wire-rope manufacturer Andrew Smith Hallidie perfected in the 1870s. In the 1880s, Chicago had more than 1,500 grip-and-trailer cars operating on 86 miles of track. At their peak, during the 1890s, America had 283 miles of urban cable track carrying 373 million passengers annually.

In the end, however, cable cars proved too expensive, as laying cable and track could cost up to $100,000 per mile. They were also inefficient: most of the steam power generated to operate the system was used just to move the cables themselves.

Luckily, another innovation appeared just in time: electric streetcars. In 1887, Frank Sprague, a one-time assistant to Thomas Edison, started building the world’s first electric transportation system, in Richmond, Virginia, using flexible overhead cables. The small device that rode atop the electrical cable was known as a “troller,” soon enough corrupted to “trolley.” Electric trolleys were faster than cable or horse cars, running at between ten and twenty miles per hour, and, since they weren’t attached to a cable traveling at a constant speed, the trolleys were also able to accelerate. Maybe more important, they were also far cheaper than laying underground cables.

Electric trolley construction exploded in the years between 1890 and 1905, when American cities featured thirty thousand miles of electric street railway. Because one of the objectives of trolley lines was to bring shoppers into the commercial centers of American cities, they tended to be laid out like the spokes of a wagon wheel; all routes inevitably led downtown, which is one reason that central business districts grew so rapidly during the peak trolley years.

But electric streetcars deposited those shoppers on shelter islands in the middle of city streets—streets that automobile interests regarded as theirs by right. Motordom waged an unremitting campaign against electric streetcars from the 1920s on, arguing, for example, that streetcar passengers were punished by the need to walk across half a street’s worth of traffic to reach their destinations. In this, they were aided by almost dizzyingly bad management by the streetcar companies, which were frequently both poorly capitalized and corrupt. Even those that were well run had severe handicaps in the battle against automobiles and buses: streetcar companies usually owned the six to eight feet of right-of-way required for their electric cars to operate and were therefore obliged to pay property taxes on them. They also had to pay for snow removal and even, in some cases, for streetlights along the trolley tracks. Meanwhile, public streets were, well, public. They were effectively a huge, though hidden, subsidy to cars and buses.

Worse still, streetcar companies depended on franchises granted by municipalities, and frequently got them by guaranteeing to hold prices steady for an irresponsibly long time. In 1897, the Boston Elevated Company agreed to maintain a five-cent fare, including free transfers, for twenty-five years, during which inflation cut revenues in half and the company’s expenses doubled.a As a result, the electric streetcar industry peaked by the early 1920s, when probably nine city trips in ten were still made on more than thirty thousand miles of track on twelve hundred different urban transit systems and interurban railways. The number of electric streetcars actually topped out in 1917 at 72,911; annual ridership hit 15.7 billion in 1923 and started to decline thereafter.

It’s not too much to say that the streetcar industry was on life support by the 1930s, when the combination of a new federal law and an illegal corporate conspiracy administered the coup de grâce.

The law came first. One reason for the streetcar industry’s boom was that America’s streetcar companies were usually subsidiaries of local electric-power generating companies. Power companies built the early streetcar lines, then sold the electricity to operate them. Everyone made out: the electric company had a reliable buyer of its product, and the transit company could count on a dependable supplier. Or could until the Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed, which saw the collapse of fifty-three public-utility holding companies. When a single group of them, headed by Samuel Insull, the president of Consolidated Edison, went bust, it took with it the life savings of more than six hundred thousand investors. Twenty-three other utilities defaulted on interest payments.

Washington’s response was the passage of the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, popularly known as the Rayburn-Wheeler Act. Rayburn-Wheeler provided that public utilities would be confined to single states, that they could offer integrated service only to a limited geographic area, and—especially—that regulated businesses (like power generation) would be prevented from subsidizing unregulated ones (like transit). The practical result was that more than half the country’s transit companies, carrying 70 percent of America’s streetcar passengers, were sundered from their electric-power generating parents. Utility holding companies declined from 216 in 1938 (when the Act went into effect) to 18 by 1950.

The objective of Rayburn-Wheeler wasn’t to enrich the competitors of America’s streetcar companies. It was to reduce the potential for abuse. And the potential was definitely there. Unregulated streetcar companies that were owned by electric utilities were a classic moral hazard: whenever the parent company needed to improve its own bottom line, it could require its transit subsidiary to buy electricity at higher-than-market rates. If the streetcar company operated at a loss, no one cared. Even the automobile companies didn’t care about the accounting tricks that utilities were able to play on the public, and there’s no record that any of them lobbied for the provision in Rayburn-Wheeler that forced utilities to sell their streetcar companies.

They were, however, prepared to buy them.

At the heart of the 1988 Disney movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is a nefarious plot to close down the Pacific Electric’s “Red Car” mass transit system and to replace it with freeways. At the last minute, the story’s villain, Judge Doom, the head of Cloverleaf Industries, is foiled in his plan to swindle the rightful owners of the property known as Toontown and evict its residents, lovable animated characters like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Betty Boop.

The animated characters were invented. The rest? Not so much.

For more than a decade beginning in 1936, two shell companies—National City Lines and Pacific City Lines, owned by General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, and other huge companies with what you might call a strong bias in favor of gasoline-powered transportation—bought more than a hundred electric train and trolley systems in at least forty-five American cities, including Baltimore, St. Louis, Newark, and, of course, Roger Rabbit’s hometown of Los Angeles.b

In 1946, a former streetcar engineer and retired naval officer named Edward J. Quinby exposed the owners of National City Lines, writing a thirty-six-page open letter to America’s mayors and city councils. Quinby’s letter began, “This is an urgent warning to each and every one of you that there is a carefully, deliberately planned campaign to swindle you out of your most important and valuable public utilities—your Electric Rail System.” The letter worked—sort of. In 1947, National City Lines was indicted by the federal government for engaging in a conspiracy in restraint of trade.

That same year, the Schwartz family welcomed a new member. Me.

By then, my folks, emigrés from Poland, had been living in Brooklyn on and off for a little more than twenty years. The apartment where they were living when I was born, 170 Tapscott Street in the Brownsville neighborhood, was no roomier than the shtetl house they had left behind: two-and-a-half rooms—a kitchen and two bedrooms—for my parents, my two older brothers, one older sister, and me. Even after we moved to Bensonhurst when I was four years old, things were a little cramped. I shared a bedroom with my parents until I was eleven, which was when my oldest brother, Harold, got drafted into the army and my other brother, Brian, left for Brown University to get a PhD in physics.

The nearest parks of any size were nearly a mile away. One of them, Dyker Beach Park, was mostly a golf course, anyway. And membership in the Jewish Community House on Bay Parkway, where Sandy Koufax had once played ball, cost money. So our little corner of Bensonhurst had no choice but to preserve the kind of city street that had predated the automobile. Eighty-third Street, between 19th and 20th Avenues, was our playground, ball field, and hangout. The street was where we played punchball, football, a local baseball-like game called triangle (it was hard to fit a rectangular diamond on a street that was thirty feet wide), Ring-o-leevio, Johnny on a pony, box ball, and hit the penny. Stickball is probably the best remembered of the street games, one in which a pitcher would throw a rubber ball—a spaldeen—to a batter who’d hit it for distance.c Home plate was a manhole cover, which we called a sewer, second base was the next sewer, first and third were usually the back tire of the Plymouth and the front tire of the Chevy parked on either side of the street, which was about the only time we needed cars for anything. My father’s grocery store was only three blocks from our apartment.

We didn’t realize it, but Bensonhurst was already more like a museum of a long-forgotten way of life—a kind of ethnic Colonial Williamsburg—than a picture of America’s immediate future. Quinby had been too late. Four years later, when the conviction against National City was upheld on appeal, more than half of America’s electric streetcar companies had been shut down, and most of the rest partially eliminated. GM, Firestone, Mack Truck, and National City Lines’ other investors were fined $5,000; a few individuals were fined one dollar each. Fewer than eighteen thousand streetcars remained in service. Public transit traveled over and under city streets—New York’s first subway line opened in 1904—but the streets themselves had been conquered by the internal combustion engine.

While cars and buses were taking over the streets of America’s cities, another and equally important battle was going on for the roads outside them.

Country roads are very different from urban ones. For one thing, they appeared far later in history. Until the nineteenth century, in fact, roads outside cities were virtually certain to be made of packed earth: rough, flood-prone, and very unreliable.

The first method for improving them in a cost-effective way appeared around 1820, when a Scottish road-building obsessive named John Loudon McAdam figured out how to lay out a level road with proper drainage, using nothing but broken stone. His innovation—an eight-inch roadbed made up of stones “not to exceed 6 ounces in weight or to pass a two-inch ring,” topped by two inches composed of stones with no dimension greater than three-quarters of an inch, the whole thing compacted with iron rollers into a sturdy aggregate—was simple, brilliant, and, most important, economical. “Macadamized” roads spread throughout the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States, where the “National Road” that connected Cumberland, Maryland, with Vandalia, Illinois, was gushed over by an English visitor in this way:

It is covered with a very thick layer of nicely broken stones, or stone, rather, laid on with great exactness both as to depth and width, and then rolled down with an iron roller, which reduces all to one solid mass. This is a road made for ever.

Macadamized roads may have been made “for ever” but they weren’t made for cars. How could they be? Even in 1895, fewer than five hundred automobiles were operating regularly on US roads, mostly on those stone-paved city streets. Ten years later, in 1905, only about seventy-eight thousand had been registered in the entire country. The impetus for building those first macadamized roads did not come from cars, but bicycles.

The League of American Wheelmen was founded in 1880 in Newport, Rhode Island. By 1900, it was America’s largest special-interest group. And the interest with which it was specially concerned was roads. Bad as dirt roads were for slow-moving horse carts, they were basically impassable for bicycles, which were then taking America by storm. In 1891, the League published a pamphlet, the Gospel of Good Roads: A Letter to the American Farmer, as the manifesto for the National League for Good Roads. A year later, they started publishing Good Roads Magazine. The campaign was explicitly intended to build a coalition of bicyclists, farmers, and railroad companies, each of which had an interest in road improvement: the cyclists for obvious reasons, and the farmers not just because they depended on those very undependable dirt roads to get perishable goods to market, but because a macadamized road allowed a two-horse team to pull the same amount of freight that had earlier required six horses. For their part, the railroads, which had laid more than two hundred thousand miles of track by the end of the nineteenth century, were aware that the value of their network could be multiplied many times by improving access to it. They even dispatched hundreds of “Good Roads” trains to rural stations, where they would build a few miles of macadamized roads using steamrollers, as a taste of what real road improvement could look like.

Those new-and-improved roads looked a lot different outside cities than inside. One reason was that the rise of automobile culture tracked, almost exactly, with the beginnings of the movement known as American Progressivism, and the first automobiles were embraced as a Progressive solution to the widely accepted notion that cities were basically incubators of immigration, crime, and tenements. To Progressives, cars provided an escape from cities, though the escape they provided was pretty rocky—before the twentieth century, there were virtually no paved roads between cities in the United States—and confusing, since no one had come up with a naming or numbering system for intercity roads. Rand McNally’s first road atlases guided travelers by listing turns, landmarks, bridges, and forks in the road.

Those roads that did exist were built to handle—in descending order—bicycles, farm vehicles (horse drawn and gas powered), and the occasional recreational automobile. So important were bikes that by the end of the 1890s, the so-called sidepath movement had its own magazine, accurately though predictably titled Sidepaths, that advocated for protected bike lanes that “shall not be less than three feet or more than six feet wide . . . constructed within the outside lines and along and upon either side of . . . public roads and streets.” No wagons, carts, or horses: bike paths.

But by the 1920s, America’s cars had multiplied to the point that they were literally destroying simple macadamized roads. The rocks that composed the roads were relatively light, which meant that the millions of rubber tires kicked up a dangerous amount of dust and caused the roads to deteriorate rapidly. The immediate answer was found in the same long-gestating hydrocarbons that fueled all those new cars: mixing tar with macadamized stone, later to be replaced by the petroleum byproduct known as asphalt. By 1925, seventeen million cars rode on twenty thousand miles of concrete-paved roads—and more than two hundred thousand miles of “improved” macadamized roads.

However, while engineers learned how to improve intercity roads, they weren’t much good at figuring out how to pay for such improvements. The railroads that had been the great transportation innovation of the nineteenth century had been built by privately owned corporations (though on public land, which was given to companies like the Union Pacific). Private capital for roads was available. The Long Island Motor Parkway, the first thoroughfare in the world restricted solely to cars and buses, was completed by William K. Vanderbilt at a cost of $2 million in 1908.d The Lincoln Highway, begun in 1913 as America’s first transcontinental road, was the brainchild of the Indianapolis industrialist Carl Fisher, as was the Chicago-to-Miami Dixie Highway. But private dollars were limited. The logic that regarded urban trolley tracks as a private enterprise, but city streets as a public responsibility, was more and more appealing to advocates of an intercity/interstate road system.

Those advocates were compelled to fight against a long history of opposition to national road building. The original Articles of Confederation, hostile to anything that might result in tyranny by a national government, explicitly prohibited any such activity. It’s a little easier to understand the suspicion that the eighteenth-century founders of the United States had for national road-building enterprises if you remember that highways—the word comes from the defining characteristic of such roads, which was that they were raised, usually a foot or two, from the surrounding land—were so expensive to build and maintain that they had historically been a royal asset. In fact, for centuries “highway robbery” was a capital crime because thievery that occurred on the king’s roads was the next thing to treason.

The conventioneers who spent the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia changed all that. Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution that they wrote empowered the new federal government to establish “post offices and post roads,” which provided a loophole through the ban on federal road building. Eventually. It took another 125 years or so before the Sixty-Fourth Congress managed to pass America’s first federal roads bill, the Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916.


On Sale
Aug 18, 2015
Page Count
312 pages

Samuel I. Schwartz

About the Author

Sam Schwartz, a.k.a. “Gridlock Sam,” is one of the leading transportation experts in the United States today. He served as New York City’s traffic commissioner and the New York City Department of Transportation’s chief engineer. Schwartz currently runs Sam Schwartz Engineering and is a columnist at the New York Daily News. He has been profiled by the New Yorker, New York Times, and many other national publications. Schwartz lives in New York City and owns a Volvo that can drive without him.

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